Sep 20, 2019

Brad Smith discusses antitrust probe's impact on Microsoft

Axios' Ina Fried with Microsoft President Brad Smith. Photo: Ed Jay Photography for Churchill Club

On Monday, I asked Microsoft president Brad Smith, who is all too familiar with antitrust battles, whether he thinks the antitrust investigation caused Microsoft to miss shifts in technology, such as the iPhone.

Why it matters: Microsoft wasn't broken up, as one judge initially ordered, but it spent years battling in court and ultimately was forced by regulators around the globe to pay fines and offer Windows customers in some places the ability to choose a different browser.

  • "There's a lot that I think people can learn from our mistakes, our travails," he said during our interview at the Churchill Club.

Smith recalled a Microsoft director pointing out that there was an opportunity cost to continuing to fight the government.

  • "Every hour you spend doing one thing is an hour you don't spend doing something else," he said:
"That's sort of like the laws of physics somewhere. If you have to spend a lot of time dealing with an antitrust issue, it will mean that there is a lot of time that you are not spending on other things. And you can't possibly know in advance what those other things would be. "
"It's only a decade later when you see the parts of technology that maybe passed you by. And you can ask yourself, what if? What if I wasn't spending all that time in a deposition or getting ready for it or dealing with the controversy around this? Would I have recognized this other shift? Would I have done a better job of jumping on it? "

As for the current antitrust situation, Smith noted that things are different from when Windows was under antitrust scrutiny.

  • "At one level, I think you could look at it and say, hey, a world with multiple platforms by definition is more competitive than a world where everybody is focused on one," he said.

Yes, but: Smith noted that today's giants exert more control over their platforms than Microsoft did over Windows in its heyday. "

  • "You know, we at Microsoft were never smart enough to think of a thing called an app store ... anybody could always put any app that they wanted onto Windows."

The bottom line: When evaluating regulators' concerns, tech companies have to think not only about the monetary penalties or conduct remedies that are on the table, but also about how fighting regulators — or not fighting them — will affect the company's ability to innovate.

Go deeper: Watch the full video of the event here

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